Iran's Nuclear Know-How Unimpeded

Article excerpt

At a remote site 200 miles south of Tehran, Iranian scientists are learning more about the basic means to build a nuclear weapon every day.

The facility - named Natanz, after the nearest town - is where Iran has begun the process of producing fissile material. Thousands of thin, vertical tubes spin at outrageous speeds, atom by atom enriching raw uranium gas into more useful material.

Iranian officials say Natanz will make low-enriched uranium to use in civil power plants. And the just-released assessment by US intelligence agencies concludes that Iran has indeed put its covert weapons program on hold.

But developing the technology to enrich uranium is perhaps the most difficult step in a nuclear weapons - or civilian power - program. According to administration officials and outside experts, it is possible that Tehran has simply decided it does not need to proceed with actual bomb work, at least for now.

"Iranian leaders appear to have recognized that by staying within the rules they can acquire capabilities sufficient to impress their own people and intimidate their neighbors, without inviting tough international sanctions or military attack," concludes George Perkovich, director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in an assessment of the US National Intelligence Estimate's (NIE) revelations.

As of now the US intelligence has high confidence that Iran has not produced enough highly enriched fissile material for a nuclear weapon. The earliest it would be able to do so is probably within the 2010 to 2015 time frame, according to the new NIE.

And if Iran does decide to develop nuclear weapons, scientists would most likely use centrifuge technology, which they are currently working on at Natanz.

"Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons," says the NIE.

Iran has long claimed that its enrichment program is intended for civilian purposes. Iranian officials say they only want to learn how to produce fissionable fuel for power plants, as they are allowed to do under terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But in the past, Iranian officials have engaged in what UN weapons inspectors consider to be suspicious behavior in regard to their enrichment effort. For instance, Tehran has built and secretly operated centrifuges, the spinning tubes which are the heart of the enrichment technology Iran has chosen.

For this and other reasons the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2003 declared Iran in violation of its UN nuclear safeguards agreement.

The Bush administration has vowed to continue to press for further UN sanctions designed to pressure Iran into abandoning enrichment altogether.

"Iran's uranium and plutonium programs are still a concern for US security and are still operating in violation of binding UN Security Council resolutions," write Jon Wolfsthal and Jon Alterman, senior fellows at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in an analysis published in December. …